#Detoxic: Social media’s influence on body image and eating disorders


Photo Illustration by Kate Schrage and Kristin Kuwada

Kristin Kuwada

After an exhausting afternoon of multiple sports practices, Jessica’s* exercise had only just begun. She felt as though she needed to work out until she was physically unable to continue.

Like most days, she went through her routine with barely any food in her system.

“I was going on my run, very lightheaded, everything was kind of blurring but my eating disorder kept telling me to keep pushing through,” Jessica said.

She noticed that her vision was deteriorating because she was so exhausted while running that she couldn’t keep her eyes open.

“I was just in my head thinking about nothing and thinking about everything the whole time and just sort of daydreaming while I was running,” she said.

She remembers she was overexerting herself to the point where she no longer knew where she was, and suddenly she smashed, headfirst, into a pole.

Jessica said she is currently recovering from anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder associated with a significantly low body weight and an intense fear of gaining weight. She describes that period in her life, from ninth grade until only recently, as physically and mentally draining.

Although Jessica now recognizes the severity of her condition, she recalls that this incident did not stand out to her as abnormal at the time.

“I wish I could say it was a wake up call to what I was doing to myself, but it really did take me a while after that to get the proper help, “ Jessica said.

Jessica is not alone. In a recent Chronicle survey of 265 students, 11 percent of students report that they have had or are currently struggling with an eating disorder.

Former Harvard-Westlake psychologist Kavita Ajmere said that as the reach of social media has become almost inescapable, teenagers are becoming increasingly exposed to idealized body standards.

While there are countless external factors that are personal to every individual who develops an eating disorder, one common contributor to what Jessica describes as “the perfect storm” is social media.

“Without social media, eating disorders would still exist but they might not be as prevalent,” Jessica said. “It really creates an air of negativity around yourself and the way you feel about yourself, whether you have an eating disorder or not.”

According to the North Carolina Medical Journal, social media’s body ideals are the strongest indicators of negative body image. Out of 265 students surveyed in a Chronicle poll, 54 percent reported that exposure to social media made them insecure about their own bodies.

“I would have thoughts about restricting, about over exercising, negative body image, negative self-talk, and in that flurry social media was there as well,” Jessica said. “It kind of perpetuated all of those thoughts and it wouldn’t give me time to get better.”

Sally*, who recently recovered from anorexia nervosa, said that social media influenced the development of her negative body image.

“For me, it’s more subconscious,” Sally said. “I don’t find myself staring at Instagram models but I think over time after seeing a lot of the same body type I felt that was the right body type and that mine was wrong.”

A study by the Royal Society for Public Health found that Instagram was associated with high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying and FOMO or “fear of missing out”.

“These societal pressures can really take a toll on the human psyche,” Ajmere said. “It can be agonizing, it can lead to depression and serious anxiety, and ultimately those are disorders that could affect your entire world.”

For teenagers who have a desire to lose weight, the “wellness” industry online offers a possible solution through health trends and fad diets that have become popular in the last decade. By using celebrities and supermodels as spokespeople for health, this industry has promoted juice diets and cleanses. Pressed Juicery, a popular juice diet company, advertises praise for its cleanses from celebrities like Jessica Alba, Miranda Kerr and Nicole Richie.

“Day 3 and my LAST day of the @PressedJuicery cleanse and I’m feeling better than ever!” Richie tweeted to her 5.08 million Twitter followers.

“I think that society’s dieting mentality is what traps young girls and young boys because it doesn’t start as an eating disorder,” Jessica said. “They start one diet and all of a sudden they can’t get out.”

According to the Chronicle poll of 265 students, 10 percent have admitted to trying a juice or an all liquid diet.

The chief of the division of gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition at Winthrop-University Hospital, James H. Grendall, said that there is no scientific backing that juice cleanses remove toxins from the body, and the human body is well designed to eliminate wastes and toxins on its own.

“I think that unfortunately a lot of these companies capitalize on a short-term fix and they’re not really looking at wellness,” Ajmere said. “I think that really to look at wellness, you have to look at the interplay between the mind and body.”

Many people who have tried these diets said they have felt that they are not only extremely difficult to sustain,but that they can even create health problems that didn’t exist before.

“I only did [the juice cleanse] for a day, but I found it incredibly hard and I felt super tired and had a headache all day,” Ava Benavente ’20 said.

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, men are less likely to look for treatment options because of the cultural stigma that pathologizes eating disorders as a women’s issue.

“I think it’s the reverse problem for guys, in that the culture encourages guys to put on weight and get bigger, whereas for women it’s all about losing as much weight as possible,“ Tiber Seireeni ’18 said.

The National Eating Disorder Information Center explains that the lack of discussion among men is often due to the pressure to conform to their gender role. In many cases, it’s not that males are not exposed to the same problems or do not feel the same insecurities, but that there is stigma that males do not have or should not have a problem that is stereotyped as a female issue.

“In general, women are conditioned to be very concerned about their body image and how they eat whereas guys aren’t really held to the same standard,” Dylan Faulcon ’18 said. “Guys can sometimes be a little hesitant to talk about how they’re struggling with something.”

Ajmere said that aside from issues of misdiagnosing, health and nutrition have become a great source of confusion and misconception, especially due to the greater prevalence of fad and unhealthy diets.

“These are conversations that families should be having with their children about the unrealistic aspects of media in general,” Ajmere said. “The best part about living in a country where we really are paying more attention to mental health is that there are a lot of different places and resources where people can get help.“

 **Names have been changed.